At the moment, only one German state regularly uses ankle bracelets to electronically monitor criminals on probation. But other states soon may adopt what appears to be an effective, cost-cutting measure.
The ankle bracelets have been effective in Hesse
Ten years ago, the western German state of Hesse became the first state to regularly implement the use of electronic ankle bracelets to monitor criminals on probation. Hesse's justice minister Joerg-Uwe Hahn remembers there was quite a lot of political discussion over the decision at the time.
"On the one side, the conservative camp was saying 'no, this can't be allowed, people can't just sit at home with a glass of beer on the balcony and serve out their sentences,'" Hahn said. "On the other side were progressive opponents who said the problem was 'Big Brother is watching you' - everyone gets one of the devices and then the evil state can control everything."
It turned out that both scenarios were wrong, and the ankle bracelets turned out to be very successful at monitoring a person on probation.
Electronically checking in
The bracelets are about the size of a watch and communicate by wireless with people like Hans-Dieter Amthor, who works as a probation officer for a county court in Darmstadt.
In Hesse, the bracelets are seen as a good deterrent to jail
"Let's say someone is supposed to be home at ten o'clock at night," Amthor says. "10:01, if the person isn't at home, the bracelet sends a signal to a computer, which then generates an SMS to a probation officer. Two minutes past ten, the probationer has a problem."
In extreme cases, the person can be taken back into custody. But of the 700 people who have worn ankle bracelets in Hessen in the last ten years, that has only happened in ten percent of the cases.
Built-in scheduling device
Most of the time, the ankle bracelet serves a functional role by helping probationers stick to a regular schedule. The exact time a person is supposed to spend at home is coordinated with probation officers, taking into account commitments such as a job. Amthor says the bracelets played a role in changing a drug addict's life.
"She wore the ankle bracelet for six months," he said. "I don't want to put too much praise on the bracelet here - it wasn't the only factor - but since then, she's been drug-free for several years, is married and has a job. I don't think things would have turned out like that without the ankle bracelet."
In addition to having a positive influence on recovery, Hesse's justice minister Hahn also sees a financial advantage in using an ankle bracelet compared to putting someone in jail. To keep someone in jail for a day costs about 100 euros, but its only 33 euros for a day for monitoring an ankle bracelet.
Hahn will recommend ankle bracelets to other German states
"To me, that's an example of smart saving," he said. "We save about two-thirds of the cost and see the benefits as well. If the person was in jail, we wouldn't be able to practice a coordinated daily schedule."
Some thought has been given to taking the use of the bracelets a step further by placing them on violent or sexual offenders to electronically monitor their whereabouts. That would be an alternative to putting them in preventive detention, a practice which has come under fire from the European Court of Humans Rights.
But Hahn isn't sure that's a good move at the moment, since right now the bracelets only track whether or not a person is at home or not. It doesn't pinpoint their location.
"That would have to be done by GPS, and everyone who has ever used a GPS knows that there is a high margin of error," he said.
State justice ministers are to meet starting Wednesday to discuss implementing the bracelets in other parts of Germany. Hahn will be recommending to them that they adopt the simple but successful system used in Hesse to make sure probationers are in the right place at the right time.
Author: Christoph Scheffer (mz)
Editor: Michael Lawton